Rangers lose big in Vegas

Rangers Golden Knights Hockey

David Desharnais goes for a loose puck in front of Marc-Andre Fleury during the Rangers’ 2-1 loss to the Golden Knights. AP Photo via Getty Images 

Plenty of fans made the trip to the sunset strip to cheer on their favorite team in Vegas. A destination I could be soon visiting in a month. The Rangers let down a lot of fans with another disjointed performance in a 2-1 loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated to the astonishing expansion best in the West Golden Knights.

If they were looking to hit the five day bye week in style, they lost big in Vegas. I’m not referring to the scoreboard. Rather center Kevin Hayes, who left the contest in the first period with a “lower body” injury stemming from a heavy hit he took. The week off comes at a good time for a team clearly struggling to string together consistent efforts. They aren’t scoring much since losing Chris Kreider, who appears to be the glue that held together the KZB line that’s now divided.

Pavel Buchnevich was a healthy scratch for the first time all season. The gifted 22-year old Russian having cooled off considerably. Since a hot start that saw him tally 20 points (9-11-20) in the first 25 games including a big November, he’s been out of sync. In 16 games since Dec. 1, he’s totaled six points (2-4-6). Despite creating offensive chances, the production is down. So, Alain Vigneault played his card which I predicted when Mats Zuccarello dressed. He wouldn’t give a straight answer as to why he benched the team’s third leading scorer.

Many complained over it. Maybe so. But I can’t tell why Buchnevich sat. I’m not a mind reader. However, Vinni Lettieri stayed in the lineup a second straight game. I think Vigneault likes Lettieri’s straight ahead North American style. He plays a simpler effective game with a shoot first mentality while being defensively responsible. He always looked like he belonged in camp. I believe he’s here to stay. Especially if Hayes is out for a extended period.

Lettieri was one of the few skaters who was effective throughout against a superior Vegas team that looks like it could contend in its inaugural year. They play so well under coach Gerard Gallant that it’s not far fetched to see a cohesive roster making a deep run this Spring. A smart attacking and defensively sound club, they come at you with tons of speed in transition and shoot whenever there’s a opening. The polar opposite of what’s going on with the Rangers.

It’s a sharp contrast. The Golden Knights held a 34-29 edge in shots and out-attempted the Blueshirt 64-51. It was more lopsided until they fell behind on William Karlsson’s game-winning goal that came with 11:02 remaining in regulation. A play indicative of what plagues the Rangers. They quickly moved the puck up ice with no resistance. A Jonathan Marchesseault touch pass to Reilly Smith saw the former Panther catch four Rangers napping before dishing across for Karlsson’s 22nd past a blameless Ondrej Pavelec.

It was humiliating. You had four guys in white sweaters on one side watching Smith as the trailer Karlsson snuck in for a easy one-timer. Brady Skjei was lost in no man’s land and rookie Boo Nieves also was out of position. That one was really on Skjei, who along with a self-critical Ryan McDonagh, had a miserable night.

When asked about it afterwards in the locker room, the Rangers captain pointed directly at himself indicating that the team’s best players weren’t and it started with him. He said he needs to lead by example and will try to when play resumes with a whale of a rivalry game against the Islanders at MSG this Saturday at 1 PM.

To a man, they knew they let each other down. Particularly Pavelec, who Vigneault told last Monday he would be getting the second end of a back to back. He was fantastic making 32 saves with several sparklers. Without him and his team blocking 22 shots, they would’ve been blown out of the building in craps style. He couldn’t have done more if he tried.

Brendan Smith also took a seat upstairs following some more poor play. Steven Kampfer made his first appearance in a while. Paired with Marc Staal, he was fine. More than I can say for the top two pairs with McDonagh and Skjei having nightmares with the relentless Golden Knights. McDonagh blew his assignment on James Neal’s tying goal late in the first. It was too bad because Vigneault’s odd reconstructed lines were working before Hayes went down.

Mika Zibanejad sniped his 13th past Marc-Andre Fleury on a well executed play where all five Ranger skaters touched the puck. Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk started it in their end making a seamless transition to Lettieri, who fed Michael Grabner. Grabner then passed across for Zibanejad, who used a Vegas defenseman as a screen to surprise Fleury with a accurate shot high glove for a 1-0 lead.

But in a period where they actually led in shots 11-10 forcing Fleury into some difficult saves, they couldn’t hold it. A Paul Carey turnover and McDonagh being caught out of position allowed Neal to get free in the slot and fire home his 18th from David Perron at 17:23.

Once the goal was scored, the Golden Knights turned up the heat. They had 12 attempts blocked speaking to the volume and pace they play with.

The second was uncompetitive. Pavelec bailed out his teammates a lot. He stopped all 13 Vegas shots to keep the game tied despite the Golden Knights spending plenty of time buzzing around his net. It was mind numbing. Not having Hayes hurt. It forced Vigneault to mix and match.

Most frustrating was their refusal to shoot the puck. While Vegas came at Pavelec in waves getting four odd-man rushes with McDonagh guilty of bad pinches twice on the same shift, it was amazing that the score didn’t change. Nick Holden at least got back and took the pass away allowing Pavelec to take the shooter and come up large. There was another ugly turnover where Skjei didn’t prevent the pass but Pavelec made a miraculous save. It was that bad.

Playing for a second consecutive night, the Rangers ran out of gas in the third. Following a encouraging start that saw them get five of the first seven shots, they got tired. The most effective players were their grinders. While Zibanejad made low percentage plays by failing to shoot when open for poor passes that had no chance, the fourth line of Nieves, Grabner and Lettieri nearly scored. But Grabner was denied by a sliding Fleury, who played well. When Lettieri is out there, he makes things happen. He has to play.

Then the David Desharnais unit followed up with a strong shift. They cycled well and forced Fleury into another big save robbing Carey. The thing is it can’t always be the supporting cast generating the best chances. At some point, your best players have to be your best. When you have J.T. Miller giving up completely on a two on one by not bothering to backcheck, that’s inexcusable. It was embarrassing. He didn’t even hide it. I would’ve benched him. But he never missed a shift getting over 20 minutes.

I know they were short a man. That’s understood. But Miller should know better. That’s why he gets the treatment from Vigneault. So when I see our fans say it’s only Buchnevich, it’s not true. It’ll be interesting to see what develops when they return.

Regarding Zuccarello, he was completely ineffective. It was painfully obvious he wasn’t 100 percent. No way should he have played over Buchnevich. That is undeniable.

Now, it’s a five day break. Probably the best thing for this team. They need to refuel and get ready for the retaining 40 games.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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